Art As Pageant

Antoni Miralda's studio is the world and you are his subject

On the kind of glorious Saturday afternoon that makes absolute sense out of living in South Florida, the riverside tables at Big Fish Mayaimi are filled with lazy diners relishing sunshine and fried fish. Despite the fine weather, the restaurant's tin-roof indoor dining room is buzzing with activity. Miami's cultural mavens have gathered here to stick out their tongues.

The small room has a pink color scheme and a wall of shelves laden with exotic foodstuffs: bags of varied beans, a row of colored soda cans from Caribbean countries, matzo boxes, fish tails, marshmallow Easter bunnies, packets of squid ink, and a dried pig's head grinning on a plate. In addition to these permanent flourishes, bright lights and umbrellas have been set up in one corner. A photographer holds his camera a few inches from the mouth of concert promoter Laura Quinlan, who giggles as she hesitantly extends her tongue. "Good," cheers artist Antoni Miralda, who stands behind the photographer, clapping his hands. "A little farther out. That's it."

Miralda, as he is known to everyone, is the proprietor of Big Fish, along with his long-time partner, chef Montse Guillen. He has organized the tongue photo shoot to gather images for an installation of his work. The show, "Grandma's Recipes -- Miami Bureau" opens this Friday, October 30, at the Miami Art Museum (MAM).

"Next!" shouts Miralda, an angular figure with a gray ponytail and a thin, secretive smile that flashes frequently. He flits about the room in loose light-blue slacks, an artfully clashing print shirt, and espadrilles with soles made from tire treads. Miralda weaves from English to Spanish to his native Catalan as he embraces newcomers, offering them iced tea, wine, and conch fritters.

"The tongue is something that's usually so hidden. It's so sensitive and so full of microbes," Miralda notes earnestly, peering through a second camera on a tripod. "It's such an important organ that I think we should stick it out and see what happens."

Spurred by phone calls from MAM personnel, 50 people drop in throughout the day to pose, including Wolfsonian museum director Cathy Leff, art collectors Ruth and Marvin Sackner, model Hunter Reno, artist Gary Moore, Ocean Drive features editor Tom Austin, and Spanish Cultural Center director Santiago Munoz. Miralda is inordinately fascinated by the large silver stud in one young woman's tongue. "Does it ache like a filling when you eat something cold?" he asks, peering into her mouth. It does.

Some subjects, such as Quinlan, have brought their children, and Miralda jollies them out of camera shyness by having everyone in the room join them in a communal "Aaaahh," tongues extended. The artist's favorite pictures will be exhibited at the museum, projected onto the wall so the tongues appear thirteen feet tall. Visitors to the exhibition will also be asked to sit for photos. Pictures not displayed at MAM will be posted on the Web (www.foodculture.com). By the show's end in January, Miralda hopes to have created an extensive and diverse collection of images of Miami tongues.

"For the people who stick their tongue out, there may be nothing more to it than it's fun to have their picture taken that way," Miralda admits. "But in a bigger way, there's the idea that the tongues become like a human landscape of Miami, which is a series of different tongues, as in different languages, different tastes, different levels of appreciation sharing a space, with which a dialogue is established. The tongue nourishes us and it allows us to express ourselves, to communicate with other foreign tongues."

Inma Roca, a corporate public relations executive and fellow Spaniard, preps for her photo by coating her tongue with green sugar granules, so it appears to have grown a layer of festive mold. "Your tongue is something so intimate, no one ever sees it," she says later. "Who but Miralda could get so many people to stick their tongue out for the camera?"

Over the past three decades Miralda, who is 56 years old, may have enlisted more people in the service of art than any other contemporary artist. Although his works have involved thousands, perhaps his projects are known better by seamstresses in Paris, bakers in Barcelona, or slaughterhouse workers in Kansas City than by typical art world patrons.

His preferred medium is ceremony, and his work recognizes ancient religious and pagan festivals as the original public art. "I was always interested in popular culture as a way to get beyond the barriers any artist has in reaching a broad public," Miralda explains. "I'm fascinated by the things that link people to their home and environment, in the souvenirs and icons of celebrations -- how an Easter bunny in your country is like a chocolate cathedral in mine, or a hand-painted egg in another."

Like that of other artists who came of age in the Sixties, Miralda's art is born of common experience, employing quotidian symbols, usually foods, that suggest larger social and political themes. The antithesis of a painter who toils alone in his studio, Miralda is an impresario, an instigator of participatory spectacles so far-reaching they can make even grand public art projects like Christo's 1983 Surrounded Islands seem like intimate affairs.

Influenced by his childhood in an industrial suburb of Barcelona, where his family worked in the textile trade, Miralda has consistently collaborated with artisans to create his own art. "I've always enjoyed working with professionals," he explains. "Things happen because of the knowledge of someone who knows how to do carpentry or to cook. Why would I start trying to make an ice sculpture or catch lobsters if there's someone who already knows how to do it?"

The artist also encourages people who usually have little contact with the art world to get involved. In 1981 he organized a parade through downtown Kansas City to invoke the links between livestock, agriculture, and the economy of America's heartland. Dancing steaks and wheat sheaves and giant cow floats were among the attractions. The event, which took three years to prepare, included an exhibition in the commodities exchange building; Miralda lined a wall with slices of bread and projected on it images of eating rituals and food production. That same year, Miralda organized a Thanksgiving dinner for animals in the Bronx Zoo. Elaborate dishes for the zoo residents were prepared by a team of New York restaurant chefs. Visitors could watch the animals enjoying their sumptuous feasts; at the same time, a video monitor in one of the animal houses showed American families pigging out on Thanksgiving turkeys and hams.

Miralda orchestrated his largest endeavor in 1992: the symbolic marriage of the Statue of Liberty and the statue of Christopher Columbus that overlooks Barcelona's harbor. The Honeymoon Project was carried out over six years and involved thousands of people around the world who offered banquets for the "couple" and presented them with gifts: rings made in Valencia, Spain, and Birmingham, England; a necklace constructed of Los Angeles traffic lights; a Liberty Bell cape made in Philadelphia; a giant Swiss lace handkerchief; a monumental wedding cake displayed in front of the Eiffel Tower. Miralda held a public celebration for the unveiling of each gift.

"There are so few artists who operate on such a generous scale," says Amy Cappellazzo, director of the Rubell Family Collection and one of those who showed up to have her tongue photographed. "Miralda's works are generous in size, in the bold materials that require large spaces. They are likewise generous in spirit."

Last year a retrospective of drawings and videos of Miralda's work traveled to Spain, accompanied by a 600-page catalogue documenting 75 projects he has conceived since 1965.

"Miralda has always been ahead of his time," says MAM senior curator Sue Graze. "Artists in this postmodern era may think that involving the spectator and the community as part of the work is a new thing, but Miralda was doing it years before. You get a lot of visual pleasure out of his work, but at the same time there's a lot of intellectual meat."

Helen Kohen, the former Miami Herald art critic, first observed Miralda at work in 1982. She was immediately impressed by both his joie de vivre and what she sees as the greater significance of his art. "I think he's a very important historian," she says. "He's always creating from memory, from history, from civilization and culture. I see the richness in him that I see with very serious people making art.

"For all the fun and games, he's always talking about very serious things," Kohen adds. "He doesn't let you off the hook on the obvious. You can laugh at the parade and eat the food, but you're really eating bits of civilization. His work may be fun and silly. It may take the form of a cake covered with gooey icing, but underneath is something very real."

Miralda came to Miami in 1992, drawn by the city's proximity to the Caribbean. But he is not a familiar name here. Before MAM offered him this chance to create a project as part of its "New Works" series, no local museums had expressed interest in him.

The public has seen a few of his works, notably a giant high-heeled shoe that until recently stood in front of Big Fish and could be seen from I-95. The wooden shoe, which becomes a gondola when the mirrored heel is detached, was created by Italian craftsmen for the 1990 Venice Biennial. Now owned by Miami Beach developer and art collector Craig Robins, the shoe faded and warped in the sun and is being restored. Miralda has replaced it with a giant fiberglass "tri-unicorn" -- a sheep standing on a pig standing on a cow -- made for the 1981 "Wheat and Steak" parade in Kansas City. Miralda also designed a South Beach lifeguard stand shaped like a bed, and two chairs on Lincoln Road fashioned from tires.

But a number of other art projects he hoped to showcase in Miami never materialized. Invited here in 1982 to participate in the New World Festival of the Arts, he planned a banquet honoring Santeria gods, with foods traditionally placed on Afro-Cuban altars. He also hoped to produce a festival at Vizcaya celebrating Seminole culture. Those and several other projects never got off the ground.

Asked why, Miralda sighs, mumbles something about people and bureaucracy and fear, and then quickly changes the subject.

As artist Cesar Trasobares recalls, the charismatic Catalan artist's ideas were just too abundant for the festival organizers to bear. "It was a matter of Miralda's ambition going way out," recalls Trasobares, who was formerly the director of Dade County Art in Public Places. He and Miralda have since become close friends and occasional collaborators. "I think they assumed he was going to propose something small, like design a ribbon to cut for the opening ceremony."

But Helen Kohen, who accompanied Miralda during much of his visit to Miami, remembers it a little differently. "It was as if Miralda had come from Mars," she says. "He was never able to do anything he wanted here because nobody understood."

Kohen clearly remembers being present at one surreal meeting Miralda had with the management of the Fontainebleau Hotel to discuss his proposed Fontainebleau Deco Cake. Local Cuban pastry chefs were to have constructed edible replicas of Miami Beach buildings, which were to be displayed in the hotel lobby. "Here was Miralda wearing something like one pink shoe and one orange shoe and a funny shirt and a ponytail, trying to explain his idea to these guys in three-piece suits," Kohen says. "He was totally serious, but they didn't understand each other."

Kohen points out that after just a few days in Miami, Miralda had the prescient notion of celebrating the Art Deco structures. This was almost a decade before the renovation of South Beach, when the area was still a habitat of crack dealers. "Here was Miralda proposing to present these buildings in pretty colored cake icing years before anyone thought of restoring them and repainting them in pastels."

Miralda did create a mermaid-shape table laden with seafood and caviar for the New World festival opening. He was asked to re-create the installation during the festival at the Lowe Museum, but the museum director refused to allow him to display the seafood because of the smell. He had to use pastries instead.

Working outside the commercial art world network in any city, Miralda must depend on sponsorship by cultural institutions, government entities, and corporations to realize his projects. He has thus come to see time spent cajoling bureaucrats as an integral part of his work. "Miralda's more daring projects are absolutely unconventional," Trasobares explains. "Just try convincing people to support them and see how many laughs you get."

Miralda himself cheerfully acknowledges that people have often written him off as a nut. Long fascinated by the rituals surrounding death, he once had an idea for a suicide travel agency that would assist people in getting to the destination where they wanted to kill themselves. He found no backers for that one.

He started and abandoned many other projects for lack of funds. Often when works have had political themes or have somehow been critical of the status quo, sponsors have backed out at the last minute with little explanation. In 1980, for example, Miralda planned a holiday exhibition at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin featuring a Christmas tree made of sausages, which the artist described as alluding to "the analogy between cutting down trees and slaughtering pigs as rituals typical of the winter solstice, and Christmas as a ritual of the consumer society." After the invitations had been sent out, the gallery unexpectedly canceled the exhibition.

Miralda was also disappointed when one of his ideas for the Honeymoon Project, a peace pipe nearly 40 feet long, had to be abandoned. The pipe, which Miralda saw as a provocative symbol of the meeting of the Old and New worlds, was to be sponsored by the California Institute of the Arts. But the Native Americans who were asked to participate wanted nothing to do with anything related to a celebration of Columbus's "discovery" of America. "I've learned that you have to be able to convince people, and to fascinate," the artist says. "And you have to be very accepting and very flexible in order to make things work."

But Miralda's ability to shepherd thousands of participants when staging something as bizarre as the imaginary marriage of two monuments is testament to his determination. Video footage from the time captures boisterous revelers at some events, along with confounded passersby. Sarcastic newscasters constantly mispronounced Miralda's name, and some people they interviewed expressed anger that art had trespassed into territory where it supposedly did not belong. "I hate to see someone get away with something like this," groused a man interviewed at the presentation of the Statue of Liberty's engagement gown, presided over by New York Mayor Ed Koch and city officials from Barcelona.

"Logically, whatever you do there's going to be criticism," Miralda says with a smile. "And that also becomes part of the project itself." From his point of view, the mere fact that so many people participated in the Honeymoon Project qualifies it as a success. The publicity provoked many school teachers to take their classes on field trips to the Columbus monument and to discuss Spain's relationship with America. And when Miralda announced a contest for the best love letter written to either Liberty or Columbus, bags of mail arrived at his door. "My work isn't about instant gratification," he stresses. "It's something much more elliptical. The satisfaction comes slowly, like when you finally see 3000 love letters people have taken the time to write to the Statue of Liberty."

The first thing Miralda is likely to do when he visits a new city is go to a food market, and any time he is bored or blue the cure is a trip to the supermarket. On a recent morning, he headed to the Miami produce market in Allapattah, where he amused himself for several hours taking pictures of bundles of sugar cane, squash in net bags, and sacks of rice. He also chatted with vendors from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Next he stopped at a store in Little Haiti and bought an armload of tropical fruit sodas, choosing them for the bright-color graphics on the cans.

Miralda shares a high-ceiling Miami Beach townhouse on Espanola Way with Guillen, a space that also serves as his studio. The kitchen counter is covered with carefully chosen foods, folkloric souvenirs, and household saints from different countries. Miralda gleefully points out some of his latest purchases: a carton of Soy Dream soy milk with a rather erotic picture of splashing white liquid on the cover; phallic Gerber Graduates chicken sticks for babies; instant soups by a company called Fantastic Foods.

He has been hired by the organizers of the next World's Fair, to be held in Hanover, Germany, in the year 2000, to design the exposition's nutrition pavilion. While this is an appropriate position for the artist to hold, given that he has been involved with both food culture and large groups of people for so long, he is an unusual choice considering the official, international character of the fair. Miralda has made a scale model of the pavilion, which will include a winding passageway shaped like an intestine, a "garden of edible delights" growing on a compost wall, a display of potato clocks he is working on with a team of Finnish scientists, insect delicacies, and (if animal rights activists will permit it) an exhibit of grazing cows.

One feature of the pavilion will be a large screen on which recipes will be projected. In an attempt to create an archive of traditional dishes from all over the world, Miralda has begun gathering these recipes, establishing "bureaus" in different cities. The installation at MAM featuring the tongue photos will serve as one collection site. People can also send recipes to the www.foodculture.com Website.

"What we're looking for is the inner life that recipes reveal," says Maricel Presilla, a food historian who is assisting Miralda with the project. "They're like road maps and codes. It all goes back to the definition of what a recipe is and what a grandmother is. A grandmother is not just a woman of a certain age, she's someone who is a link between past and present. She's the person in the house who keeps the fires of tradition burning, and that person could be young or old. 'Grandmother' is really a metaphor."

Miralda's idea has already been met with enthusiasm by customers at Big Fish. On the afternoon of the photo shoot, one Peruvian woman showed Miralda her great-aunt's recipe book, handwritten in a beautiful script, while the artist oohed and aahed. At another table a man from Spain eagerly shared his recipe for fried anchovy spines.

This is the kind of reaction Miralda had hoped his call for recipes would elicit. "Food is a language we all understand," he says. "It's understood in Hong Kong the same as in Zaragoza. Today all of us are controlled by the mass media, but you have your grandmother's recipe, and you read it and you remember a day your grandmother made you rice pudding. Maybe your grandmother was Spanish and made it one way, or maybe your grandmother was Russian and she put some vodka in it. Foods are common symbols that at the same time mark the differences between us. People are beaten down by the system, they're manipulated and their cultures are homogenized. But at the same time, we have this crossing of cultures that's taking place -- and that's what saves us all."

On the shady back patio of the Palacio de los Jugos on West Flagler Street, Cuban families dig into huge pork sandwiches and homemade tamales, typical Latin American square patties of corn meal and pork wrapped in corn husks. Miralda is busy taking pictures of a man selling lobster out of his van. The artist sits down, and he and several people at neighboring tables are soon calling back and forth, trading Spanish proverbs, which the artist is delighted to learn are the same in Cuba as in Spain.

Settling down to eat, he instead picks up a tamal and uses it as a visual aid to explain his philosophy of art. "My view is, Why can't we start thinking of this as a sculpture?" he asks. "Exploring the texture and the shape, and imagining what's inside, what's going to come out when we open it."

Miralda has always seen things in a particular way. Growing up in Terrassa, just outside Barcelona, he was expected to join the family textile business. "They had a desk waiting for me," he recalls. "My natural instinct was to say no to that. Why do I have to wear jeans and sit at a desk in a textile company and go on vacation? I hate jeans and I hate vacation."

Even more stifling than the idea of a bourgeois existence were the realities of life in Spain in the Fifties under dictator Francisco Franco. Miralda recalls a repressively controlled Barcelona in which popular festivals and public dances were monitored by the guardia civil. For Miralda the Spain in which he grew up was frozen in spirit, and virtually colorless.

"There was one black man in all of Barcelona," he says. "He happened to be the lover of my neighbor. I was so lucky I could see his skin, the way it shone. I could hear his accent. Differences are what make things interesting." He decided to go in search of those differences. "The most important thing was to get out of Spain. I wanted to see what was really going on."

Miralda won a six-month scholarship to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He took the money but never entered the school, except to eat in the cafeteria. Instead he began making a living as a fashion photographer. Then he was drafted into the Spanish military; he went home to complete his service lest he be exiled from his country and his family for refusing.

Returning to Paris two years later, in 1967, he began exhibiting drawings of soldiers and put up his first installations, which used plastic toy soldiers to suggest the absurdities of war. It was the time of the student riots in France and of the Vietnam War.

Miralda soon met and married another artist, Dorothee Selz. Though they later divorced, while together they began making edible objects, and then turned a gallery into a restaurant, serving dyed and color-coordinated food to guests. Miralda recalls the venture being a success because someone threw up and the vomit was bright green. "I was always interested in color and the symbolism of color, and food was like a direct line to that symbolism and to the people," he says. "What we were looking for was participation."

He is definitely a product of the Sixties: Artists were exploring new ways of making art, staging happenings, collaborating on multimedia works that dealt with social and political issues, and bringing popular culture into galleries and museums. But Miralda insists that what he was doing was always a little different. "For some people it was or continues to be theater or performance," he explains. "But what I do is not a performance or a happening, because no one's directing what's going on. It's not planned. The idea is to prepare the terrain for things to happen, to create the possibility for participation, for interaction, for ceremony.

"We never knew how to explain this work," he goes on. "People are always trying to define what I do. Instead of sitting around and talking philosophy, I'd much rather just do something and see if it works."

While they may be skeptical at first, those who have gotten involved in Miralda's projects tend to emerge feeling enlightened, as well as enamored of the artist. Maricel Presilla, who has a doctorate in medieval history, first helped Miralda conduct research into medieval banquets. Soon she was cooking food for the Liberty/Columbus wedding feast in a homeless shelter in Las Vegas. The meal was served to 600 guests out of the trunks of 22 white limousines. "It was insanity in the name of art," laughs Presilla, who lives in New Jersey. "Miralda is a magician. He has the incredible ability to work miracles from nothing."

Montse Guillen met Miralda nineteen years ago in a restaurant she owned in Barcelona. At the time, she agreed to bake 1000 loaves of bread with flutes inside them for one of his projects. They have been together ever since. In the early Eighties they opened El Internacional, a fantastically decorated tapas restaurant in Manhattan that quickly became a hip spot among the downtown crowd.

By the end of 1992 the pair felt burned out on New York and decided to come to Miami, with the intent of traveling often to the Caribbean. When they first moved here Guillen ran the kitchen at the Shabeen Cookshack in Miami Beach's Marlin Hotel. "People enjoy working with Miralda so much because he never tells anyone what to do," she says. "Miralda gives you a problem and lets you solve it yourself. He inspires you to learn new things, and at the same time you learn about yourself. With Miralda you're always discovering something you didn't realize was there."

Finishing his lunch at the Palacio de los Jugos, Miralda picks up his camera and resumes taking pictures. He focuses on a plastic bag full of rotten bananas hanging from a tree, likely a Santeria offering. Then he gushes with approval over the composition of a coconut and a can of Coca-Cola sitting side-by-side on a table. The smell of grilled meat is in the air. Salsa blares from a car.

"Everything in society is so controlled that people don't participate," he complains. "The structures are made so that you're convinced you can't understand something because you don't have a degree or you're not cultured. Why do people think that to understand art, everyone has to understand the message and the line and the composition. Why?

"Look at this," he says, gesturing to the people eating around him, enjoying the food, the day, and each other. "This is life. This is what people understand.

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